So today (April 22, 2022) I finally head off on a trip I originally booked in 2019 for departure in spring 2020. Whilst I’ve travelled around Ireland a bit during these last two years, apart from a brief trip to Spain about 7 months ago there’s been little other overseas trips for obvious reasons.
So my destination this time is Uzbekistan. Part of the ancient silk road between China and Europe. The ‘stans are somewhere I’ve wanted to visit for a while and there’s still a few others to explore.
We flew from London to Uzbekistan on Uzbekistan airways. Their slogan is simply “good luck!”. I’m not sure if this means you need that luck or that flying with them brings you good luck. However, we arrived safely.
Arriving wasn’t actually the problem. It was the time we arrived, 3:30 a.m. By the time we got through customs immigration and collected our baggage, it was gone 4:30 a.m. when we reach the hotel.
After 2 hours of sleep, a quick breakfast, and a check-in with the guide we set off to explore Tashkent. Our first stop was the Monument to Courage which commemorates the massive earthquake that levelled a lot of Tashkent in 1996.
After this it was off to the historic quarter visiting a couple of mosques and madrassas (schools) filled by a trip to a large market, before heading for lunch.
After lunch it was time to explore the metro. It was built by Russia so contains stations with amazing features such as murals, spanning all the walls and themes for each station.
We finally exited the metro at Independence Square and wandered back towards the statue of the 1300s ruler Timur, just opposite the large Russian built Hotel Uzbekistan.
After a late night (or early morning) arrival the day before, this morning we were up at 4.30am and heading to the airport by 5am to catch the morning flight to Urgench.
After meeting up with our driver it was just a short drive to the UNESCO heritage site of Khiva. However when we got there we were in for a bit of a shock due to how busy it was. During COVID the Uzbekistan government had pushed local tourism and it seemed it had worked very well. There were bus loads of what seemed like school trips and the main thoroughfare through the old town was heaving with people.
As well as all the visitors there were many troops of traditional dancers, singers and musicians performing.
It also turns out a large dance performance starts in two days. It’s clearly an attempt to publicise Khiva to the world and although we’ll miss the performance there were many locals from the show in traditional costume. After dinner we did manage to catch a bit of the dress rehearsal they were doing too.
Today was all about castles in the desert. Thankfully I had a fairly good night’s sleep after the last couple of day’s early starts of finishes. Breakfast was interesting – a combination of cheese, meats & bread, with a fried egg, thin flat samosa and cold pancakes. So rested, and with a full stomach we set off for the Plains of Khorezm.
The first castle we visited was Qizil Qala and had been heavy restored. Being built of mud bricks meant it has badly eroded.
The interior was pretty much filled in as interior walls and floors, made of mud, collapsed.
Leaving here it was a quick drive to castle number two, Toprak Qala. The interior walls were much more complete. In fact during the time Uzbekistan was part of Russia, they stole some frescoes which were then taken to the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. There was also evidence of Zoroastrian worship found at the site too.
Finally the last stop on our castles list was Ayaz Qala which actually comprised of three castles, all rumoured to be never finished.
After a hard slog over sand and a rocky climb to the top castle we had a great view down on the other two.
After a rest at a nearby refreshments point it was time for the long drive back to Khiva for another chance at taking some photos (this time hopefully without massive crowds).
Day 4 & 5
Day 4 was pretty uneventful. A long drive from Khiva to Bukhara. The drive started okay with a new concrete road cutting through the Khorezm desert. However after lunch this all changed.
The road isn’t completed, so just over 100km from our destination it turned into a combination of potholes surrounded by a little tarmac, half dusty dirty track, half road remains, or in some places seemingly no road at all.
Despite this, after a 9 hour drive (and with all the bumps, feeling like my internal organs had all shifted around) we finally arrived in Bukhara.
Day 5 and it was time to properly explore Bukhara. We started at the Ismail Samani mausoleum. It’s small with intricate brick patterns on the outside, however there dome had been reconstructed as it fell in.
After a quick for through the local market (you could easily have a full meal on all the free samples the vendors insist you try!) we wandered to the gorgeous Bolo Hauz Mosque. It’s often called the mosque of 40 pillars despite it only having 20. The missing 20 pillars are the ones seen in the reflection of the nearby pool.
Our final stop before lunch was the Fortress Ark, where in the 19th century the Emir of Bukhara had two British officers imprisoned, and finally killed.
After lunch it was time to see the Kalyon minaret, mosque and nearby madrassa (school). The complex is beautiful with two massive ornate entrances facing each other across the square and the task minaret at one end.
This morning we headed off on a short drive to just outside the main Bukhara city in order to see the Sitora-i Mokhi Khosa or the Summer Palace of Bukharan Emirs. The term Sitora-i Mokhi Khosa means the palace of the star like the moon and is named after one of the Emir’s wives who died in childbirth.
The palace grounds are filled with many peacocks and most of the buildings now – reception room, secretary room, guest house, etc – are now small museums on a particular topic or history.
As interesting as the exhibits were, it was the wall decorations, mouldings and ceilings that were covered in colourful designs that stood out for me.
After fully exploring the palace we headed back into town to see Chor Minor. It’s a stubby, brick-built structure with four turquoise domes. The Chor Minor (Four Minarets in Tajik) is one of the most quirky buildings were saw in Bukhara with the building, resembling an upside-down chair thrust deep into the ground. In reality it’s just a gatehouse for a madrassa that no longer exists, and the four towers on the roof and not minarets and were never designed to allow the call to prayer.
Moving on we ended up back at the Lyabi House address where our hotel is. There are a couple of madrassas here along with an old caravanserai. Finally it was time for a rest to avoid the 33°C heat and for some lunchtime snacks.
Mid-afternoon I headed off to the Bozori Kord Bathhouse. When I lived in the UK I used to have regular massages but since moving to Ireland at the end of 2019 I’ve had none and my back and shoulders always hurt from working sat at a desk so much. So I thought a bit of steam, scrubbing and massage was in order!
First up, after stripping off and wrapping a thin piece of material around your waist to preserve your modesty, you had to spend 10-15 minutes stood in a raised arch in an octagonal steam room. It was a matter of seconds before sweat was dripping off me.
Then I moved into the main room which contained a raised slab of marble in the centre, about 7ft by 7ft. Here I had my arms, back and chest scrubbed with a rough glove, which judging by the bits of dead skin left on me did a good job of exfoliation, before I was soaped up and given a good wash.
Next it was massage time laying flat on the marble slab, which definitely hit the spot and loosened up those tight muscles in my neck and shoulders. Finally my arms and back were spread with a mixture of ginger and honey and it was back to a (thankfully) slightly cooler steam room to lay down for another 10 minutes. The ginger/honey mixture feels like it’s burning but it’s just getting the blood flowing. That’s then all rinsed off with two buckets of cold water that are poured over you. A bit of a shock after all the heat!
After drying off it was back to the changing area for sugared almonds and green tea and a few minutes to recover, before dressing and heading back to the hotel.
The first stop of the day was to visit the Gijduvan Ceramics Museum. It’s been run by the same family for many years and recently the father Abdullo Narzullaev, has been awarded a National Master Artisan award by the current Prime Minister of Uzbekistan. They’ve been creating pottery, embroidery and carpets for many, many generations and the quality and scope showed their experience.
It was particularly amazing to see them doing the pottery on a really small wonky wheel. The guy was throwing pots from the hump and after creating a large pot then moved on to use the remaining clay to create a smaller pot, also off the hump. He also didn’t use a wire to remove the finished pot. Instead he just slowly cupped it in his hands and brought the edges of his hands together until the pot came off.
Next, about an hour away, was Malik Rabat (Princes Palace) an old Caravanserai dating from the 11th century and now on ruins. Only the main front wall and gate, slightly restored, remain standing.
It was an important staging point for merchants coming from/to Bukhara and as far away as Afghanistan, Iran and India. And today is incongruously located next to a major highway in the middle of nowhere.
We stopped at a local house in Nurota for lunch. The usual of some salads, soup and stewed vegetables with meat. After resting for a bit of was back into town to some holy springs dating back to the 9th century, overlooked by the ruins of a fort built by Alexander the Great.
After another 90 minutes drive we arrived at our accommodation for the night, a yurt camp in the desert. I’ve stayed in yurts before but these were a little run down to be honest.
After settling in and grabbing some dinner a fire was lit in the middle of the grounds and a local musician appeared. He was playing the two stringed khazak instrument called a dombra and sang what were presumably folk songs. As the fire burnt down, he wrapped up his session and we headed to our yurts to sleep.
After what was probably just 2-3 hours sleep I got up at 5.30am and braved the freezing cold showers. The sun was just up and the rest of the camp was quiet. After a basic breakfast we set off for Lake Aidarkul.
The Lake Aidarkul site seemed half built and unfinished but is presumably owned by the same company that owned the yurt camp. However it was on the edge of the lake (which is very large) and had a sandy beach, complete with sun loungers. Clearly in a few years there will be accommodation and more of a resort here.
Lunch was all the carbs – bread, chips, rice and pasta – along with some type of boney fish pieces. If you got a piece of fish without the bones it was delicious and the pasta also had some kind of flavouring on it.
Then after lunch it was time for another long drive to Samarkand. Finally just before 6pm we arrived in the city and made our way to the hotel. It’s located right next to the Amir Temur mausoleum. After time to properly shower the dust from the yurt camp off and change it was off to a restaurant for dinner. It definitely feels different to Tashkent and the city was buzzing, maybe due to it nearly being the end of Ramadan.
Returning to our hotel, someone was spraying the paved floor in front of the mausoleum, which was also lit up, with a water hose. The reflections looked great and it was impossible to pass without taking a quick photo.
First on today’s wander around Samerkand was the Observatory of Ulughbeg. Built in the 1420s by the Timurid astronomer Ulugh Beg it was destroyed in 1449 and only rediscovered in 1908.
Ulugh Beg determined the length of the tropical year as 365d 5h 49m 15s, which has an error of +25s, making it more accurate than Nicolaus Copernicus’ estimate which had an error of +30s.
Not much remains today of the original building apart from the sextant arc which has been partially excavated. However there is a great little museum next to the site showing the history and many discoveries Ulugh Beg made.
Next it was on to the Shah-i-Zinda Mausoleum ensemble. It comprises three groups of structures: lower, middle and upper connected by four-arched domed passages. The earliest buildings date back to the 11-12th centuries but most date back to the 14-15th centuries.
The site is amazing with closely packed blue and black tiled entrances lining narrow walkways. Inside many of the mausoleums are playing but a few have rich decoration and friezes around the walls.
A quick stop at the Hazrat Khizr Mosque, formally a Zoroastrian temple built in the 8th century before continuing on to the massive Bibi-Khanym Mosque.
In the 15th century, it was one of the largest and most magnificent mosques in the Islamic world. It is considered a masterpiece of the Timurid Renaissance. By the mid-20th century, only a grandiose ruin of it still survived, but this has now been heavily restored to some of its former glory.
Then after a delicious lunch where I finally managed to taste the famous dish called Plov, it was on to Registan square. The square comprises three large madrassa – Sherdor Madrassah on right, Tillya-Kori Madrasah in the middle, and Ulugh Beg Madrasa on the left.
The Registan was the heart of the ancient city of Samarkand of the Timurid Empire, now in Uzbekistan. The name Rēgistan means “sandy place” or “desert” in Persian. It was a public square where people gathered to hear proclamations or witness executions.
It’s still a popular place for people to gather today, although for a far nicer reason. At night the madrassas are lit up in different colours as a short light show plays.
After seeing Registan square lit up we walked back to the hotel past many multicoloured fountains. 1st May is fountains day in Uzbekistan when many of the water features are turned on for the first time in the year. Many people were out with their families to see the fountains lit up in various colours and listen to music performances.
First up today was the Afrasiyab Museum. The main attraction was a large mural that had been discovered as part of an archaeological dig near the museum which is located on a hilltop next to the old city walls.
I suspect some artistic license was taken on what exactly the frieze showed as it was quoted damaged in places. The rest of the museum showed artifacts discovered at the site along with examples of how people lived back then.
After leaving the museum we attempted to cut through the Jewish cemetery. It was interesting to see the faces of the deceased engraved on the tombstones in quite realistic detail, even for the older head stones.
Unfortunately the lower gate was locked and we had to retrace our steps and follow the original road back down to the Hazrat Khizr Mosque before crossing back over to the Bebe mosque and revisiting the lunch place from yesterday. Thankfully it was much cooler than its been the last few days, although it was threatening to rain.
After a repeat lunch from yesterday (Plov) we ambled up the road for one last look at Ragistan Square. It was still fairly busy but as it was far more cloudy there was no direct sunlight so it was, in some ways, easier to take photos (well at least the sky was a little more interesting).
Leaving Ragistan we wandered through the parks and slowly made our way back to the hotel where gradually everyone congregated. There was just time for a quick coffee before it was time to head to the railway station (built by the Tsarist regime in the 1880s, so typically large and ornate) and catch the high speed train to Tashkent.